You have to love Bert Acosta (1895-1954), an aviation pioneer who became famous for his talent and his misbehavior in pre-World War II aviation. His quest for speed, which was always a part of Acosta’s daredevil psyche, led him both to piloting advanced aircraft and to racing automobiles. These pursuits, along with drinking and womanizing, became Acosta’s main pastime for his entire life.
During the years just before the U.S. entrance into World War I, Acosta earned a livelihood through the uniqueness of airplanes, traveling the region to exhibit his aircraft and give rides to locals. In many respect he was like the post-war barnstormers, gypsy flyers who traveled the nation in search of thrills and money enough to survive and keep flying. During this time he earned a reputation as a gifted but reckless pilot, as his quest for speed outstripped his fear of death. He also worked for a time as a flight instructor to World War I-bound pilots in Toronto, Canada, and in 1917 when the U.S. entered the war he entered the U.S. Air Service Reserve.
When the war ended Acosta returned to southern California and went to work for Glenn Curtiss, this time as a test pilot. He also got involved in aircraft racing and participated in several of the important air races that took place in the 1920s. For instance, in 1921 he took the Pulitzer silver trophy in Omaha, Nebraska, for setting a world’s closed-course speed record of 176.9 miles per hour. Then on May 14, 1927, he was the co-pilot for Clarence D. Chamberlin during a record-setting endurance flight that circled over Roosevelt Field, New York, for 51 hours, 11 minutes, and 20 seconds. He also helped to survey the transcontinental air mail route in 1920 and flew the mail for the U.S. Postal Service for a brief time.
There was always a self-destructive streak in Acosta, and his friends worried that he was too much the carefree daredevil, the hard-drinker, and the woman-chaser for his own good. Acosta battled alcohol his entire life, his drinking contributing to a divorce and several brushes with the law. For example, in 1923 he was arrested for drunk driving. His drunkenness also contributed to his first wife—about whom little is known except that they had two daughters—divorcing him in 1921. Not long thereafter he married Helen Belmont Pearsoll, and they had two sons. This darker side of Acosta’s personality also contributed to several accidents and near misses while flying. In 1922 he had a serious accident that incapacitated him for several weeks.
The most significant contributions of Acosta to flight came in 1927 when a business leader, Rodman Wanamaker, came to him with a scheme to make a trans-Atlantic flight that would demonstrate the feasibility of intercontinental passenger service between the U.S. and France. Acosta would pilot a Fokker trimoter aircraft, christened the America, from New York to Paris with an illustrious crew. Richard E. Byrd, the polar explorer, was commander, while U.S. Navy lieutenant George O. Noville was flight engineer and radio operator. Noted Norwegian aviator Bernt Balchen was relief pilot, although Balchen later commented that he was specifically charged with piloting during night and in dangerous weather because Acosta had not mastered instrument flying. While this group was planning their flight, in May 1927 Charles A. Lindbergh made his pathbreaking solo trans-Atlantic flight and in the next month Clarence Chamberlin made a flight with Charles Levine to Germany. It was anti-climatic, therefore, on Jun. 29 when the America took off from New York with Acosta at the controls.
The flight was ill-fated from the beginning. The aircraft was overloaded and too heavy, and only the native skill of Acosta got it airborne in the first place; this was a particular problem of the Fokker trimotors and their unforgiving nature when accelerating to take-off speed. Storms and poor visibility hampered the progress of the flight and Balchen had to fly the plane on instruments more than had been anticipated. Near the Normandy coast Acosta was at the controls when a squall forced them to ditch the aircraft. The details of this incident are unclear, but apparently Acosta was shaken by the dangerous situation and refused to relinquish the controls to Balchen. Byrd had to force him to turn over control to the Norwegian, who could only ditch the aircraft. He did so successfully, and no one aboard was killed. Publicly Byrd praised his crew and blamed the accident on poor weather and instrument failure, but privately Acosta was blamed for having to take this extreme action. Although the flight ended with an accident, the crew was treated as heroes, at least for a short time, both in Paris and New York City.
While Acosta wanted to continue flying after 1927, because of his less than sterling reputation fewer and fewer people were willing to back him. He had a series of scrapes with authorities regulating aviation and lost his pilot’s license for a time. He also invested in a succession of business deals that went bad during the 1930s, he had trouble with his ex-wife over failure to provide support, and he spent some time in jail for this as well as a series of misdemeanors. When his daughters, now young adults, came to his assistance in the mid-1930s, he was little more than a derelict. They helped rehabilitate him, got him off liquor, and helped him get back on his feet. In a fit of idealism, although the good pay fortified that idealism, he went to Spain in 1936 and flew combat missions against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
When Acosta returned to the United States, essentially a fugitive for violating the Neutrality Laws, he was unable to earn a living flying. He again turned to drink, and for the rest of his life drifted from menial job to menial job. In 1952 he collapsed in New York City. He later made his way west and two years later he died of tuberculosis in the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society’s sanitarium outside of Denver, Colorado.
Bert Acosta was one of the many second-echelon pilots who operated before the Second World War. He had attained some stature with record-making flights, but was never able to break into the ranks of such famous flyers as Charles A. Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and even Roscoe Turner. Accordingly, he scraped out a living on the margins of the expanding aviation industry. He was not able to make the transition to the airline or aircraft industry, as did so many other flyers of his stature, and after his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight he was unable to duplicate the fame he had briefly enjoyed. His self-destructive behavior also prevented him from gaining lasting respect from either the public or his fellow pilots.